Home Territory

by Rilla Askew


We headed south from McAlester to the Texas border in early morning. The day was blazing hot, humid, no wind. Typical August. There was no sense of foreboding. I was driving, my husband navigating, a division of labor we’ve been using since our honeymoon. Somewhere below the Red River we turned west, and the sunburnt plains opened before us. We passed a Justin Boots outlet just off the highway. Paul said, “Whoa, turn back.” I did, and we went in, and he bought me a pair of brown cowboy boots for my anniversary present. This is how I remember what the date was. August 6, 2001. Hiroshima Day. Our 18th  anniversary. The day George W. Bush received an intelligence briefing that said: Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.

My family calls me the family historian. I’m always saying, “Oh, that happened then, I remember, because that was when…” Events are strung in my memory like beads on an endless spiral, which is Time, which is an elliptical ever-turning wheel where the seasons mark their locations in color. August is a wan season, fading ocher and beige. This was the same August road trip when my friend Connie tried to take me to see Geronimo’s grave. We weren’t allowed. The base at Fort Sill was closed to visitors—a circumstance that puzzled Connie, shook me. That memory is our small piece of the national narrative, or one of them. It’s the thing that makes me know there is more to know.

But first:

We met up with Connie and Steve in Archer City, Texas. They were our relatively new friends then, Constance Squires and Steve Garrison. We’d all met the year before when I served as Artist-in-Residence at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, where Steve was Chair of the English Department and Connie was working on her first novel set in Oklahoma. They had roots and histories in places like mine, book and poetry passions akin to Paul’s, and this was our first road trip together—a pilgrimage to Larry McMurtry’s famous book town on the West Texas plains. Connie and Steve had trekked some three hours south from Edmond, Paul and I drove nearly five from McAlester in order to meet for lunch at the Archer City Dairy Queen. They’d both read McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Paul and I had not, but we all raised a metaphorical toast to philosophy and storytelling and youths spent habituating soft-serve drive-ins before we fanned out to scour the bookstores.

In those days there were still four large buildings called Booked Up around Archer City’s town square, each designated by a number: 1, 2, 3, & 4. Book palaces, really, shelved floor to ceiling with used volumes organized to a bibliophile’s exacting demands. Through the long afternoon we browsed and perused, gathered armloads of books, wandered from store to store, losing one another in the stacks, reconnoitering again. We were each working with a subtext, though I don’t think we talked about it that way. Paul sought a rare volume of poems by his friend Grandin Conover, who’d committed suicide in 1969. Connie was on the hunt for Iris Murdock. Steve grew up in West Texas and was a fan of McMurtry’s on a level beyond fandom: the man had been writing Steve’s own mythic family territory all his life. As for me, I had an unpaid debt to pay.

In late afternoon, as the heat and humidity grew unbearable and we were passing from one shade awning to another, we spied the great man himself, in suspenders and shirt sleeves, trundling a load of books on a dolly across the sweltering sun-bright street. Though I’d half hoped to see him, I hadn’t really expected that I would. Certainly I hadn’t thought to find him this way, on a nondescript workday with the West Texas sun bearing down as he wheeled a heavy load of cardboard boxes across the street like a UPS delivery man. When he reached the far side, he reversed the dolly and dragged the load backwards up over the curb. Then he disappeared into Booked Up No. 1.

Steve said, “Here’s your chance!”

“Really?” I said. “You don’t think it’s too, I don’t know… invasive?”

“I think he’ll appreciate it. When are you ever going to have a chance like this again?”

I looked at Paul. He shrugged. I looked at Connie, who offered a quick little why not? grin. Back to Steve, who nodded his encouragement. “Okay,” I said, and we all trooped across the street to the main store, where the rare antiquarian books were kept, and where you were to carry your stash of books you’d gleaned from Booked Up Numbers 2, 3, & 4 to pay for them. For all the manpower spent organizing and cataloging the volumes, little was spent on operating cash registers, it seemed. The whole enterprise was based on the honor system, as if it stood to reason that anyone willing to drive several hours across barren plains to reach a book town would necessarily be a person honest enough to pay for them. Inside the store, the great man was nowhere to be seen.

We set our stacks of books on the cashier’s counter and continued shopping, edging along the aisles, heads tilted back to read the titles. I kept an ambivalent eye out. I wanted to see him, and I didn’t. When my first book, Strange Business, a collection of stories about life in a fading southwestern small town, came out in 1992, Larry McMurtry gave it a lovely blurb: “Very original and very moving. This is a most promising talent.” I never thanked him. I never sent a handwritten note, as would have been most proper, nor even extend a word of thanks through my young editor, who was the one who’d sent him the galleys. The fact is, I’d been so ignorant and naïve and overwhelmed at getting published in the first place, and so in awe of a writer of Mr. McMurtry’s stature—he was like the sun to me, like gravity: a natural force—that it never occurred to me that I should.

And so now, nearly 10 years later, in McMurtry’s own fading Last Picture Show hometown, with my debtor’s sense of guilt gnawing at me and the recollection of Steve’s voice at lunch saying, “Do you know how rare that is? What a compliment? He just doesn’t give blurbs!” and despite the printed signs tacked in all the stores delineating a few simple rules of etiquette for shoppers, the main one being, Do Not Speak To The Owner, I could see that this really was my chance to make amends. When Steve eased by and told me he’d spied McMurtry sorting books in the warehouse-like area attached to the back of the store, I made my way that direction. We all four did, and paused, and grazed a few aisles away, trying to look engrossed in our browsing as if we barely noticed the lanky gray-haired man in red suspenders working at a long table near the back. He would hoist a box of books to the surface and unpack it slowly, examining the dust jackets, flyleaves, copyright pages, sorting them according to the value he understood from a lifetime’s study as a bibliophile. I think this is what most impressed me that day—the sight of Larry McMurtry working. He wasn’t a star writer on a dais, behind a podium, on a film, but a mortal man enacting the kind of ranch-hand work ethic I’d grown up with, trundling those heavy boxes, hoisting, lifting, sorting. However much some may romanticize the writer’s life, or the cowboy’s life, the code for both is the same: work hard at hard work.

Still, it took me a while to get up my nerve. I think if Steve hadn’t been there with his encouragement, and more particularly if I hadn’t seen McMurtry working in such a way, maybe I never would have. I edged nearer. “Mr. McMurtry?” He glanced up. At once I saw an invisible shield drop down, a steely protectiveness. He didn’t tell me to leave him alone, but his wariness and irritation were plain. I rattled off my rehearsed piece: in1992yougavemeawonderfulblurbfor myfirstbookstrangebusinessandIneverthankedyousoIjustwantedtosaythankyounowthankyousoverymuch. His expression eased. The protective wariness bled away. He didn’t smile or become chatty and friendly, and I saw no sign that he recalled the book or the blurb or anything at all about Strange Business, but he seemed, if not warm, at least not offended, not invaded, and not impatient with me in any way. I don’t remember what he said, or whether he said anything at all, actually—maybe he just nodded. But I felt acknowledged, as an individual, a fellow writer, and also maybe as someone who wasn’t going to ask of him another damn thing. I smiled and backed away, and Larry McMurtry turned again to his work.

My heart was still pounding when I rejoined the others. Of the four of us, I think I was the most relieved and Steve the most pleased. Maybe it was, in a way, his thank-you too. He’d read most of McMurtry’s work—some 23 novels at that point, plus scores of nonfiction books, essays, reviews—and from the time he’d been introduced to All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers by a friend in college, Steve had understood that McMurtry was writing his own home territory. Steve’s family is from the same part of Texas as Clarendon, where Captain Call returns after his cattle drive in Lonesome Dove. The landscapes in McMurtry’s fiction are Steve’s landscapes, the historical characters in the novels live on in the oral history of Steve’s family. It’s a powerful bittersweet feeling, that kind of kinship, that shared ownership, when you come upon a writer who is writing your home territory. It’s what I felt the first time I read the Choctaw/Welsh poet Jim Barnes—you’ve got to leave this land again before it hurts / you into a sin the years will not ease—writing about Summerfield, the little southeastern Oklahoma town where he grew up a dozen miles across the muddy Fourche Maline from my grandfather’s land. It’s not always place, of course, where a writer strikes your heart; it can be a sensibility, a secret yearning, lust, the hidden eyes you see with, a writer writing your lost childhood. Your dreams.

I felt giddy, relieved of a great unacknowledged tension as we lined up at the counter to pay for our books. Paul had found that rare book of poems by his friend Grandin—where else but in a town of half a million books might you find the single pearl you seek?—and I’d collected a pile of histories about Tudor England and early-day Oklahoma, and Connie and Steve each had their own tall, tidy stacks of treasures, and we paid for them all and walked back outside to the sweltering, slanting sunlight.

That my first pilgrimage to try to visit Geronimo’s grave should begin with this most American of writers makes sense beyond any way I might have tried to orchestrate it. Larry McMurtry’s writings are laced through with references to Geronimo; he’s tried as hard as any white writer since Angie Debo to tell the story from the Apache point of view—though in the end, of course, he fails, as we all fail, because white eyes can only see what they can see. But he has tried. And a certain debt was paid that day. And it happened on the same time continuum, that same pallid and searing August road trip when we tried to see Geronimo’s grave. It’s part of the story in the way the story is always telling itself, not as a crazy quilt or mosaic, but a linked narrative of juxtaposition and coincidence, of time and place and events strung together, one after the other, in a spiral, a river, an unending flow.

So, yes, we left Archer City before sunset on a lingering prairie evening when the whitened August sky seemed to stay light forever. Connie rode with me so we could talk, and Paul and Steve in their car so they could do the same, the four of us talking and talking, the way we always talk, on the long drive back north across the Red River to Connie’s home territory: the Wichita Mountains near Fort Sill.

Lawton, Oklahoma. Army base town. Fast food. Neon lights. Pawn & Gun. Driving into town that evening I thought, This place could be anywhere. Most towns in Oklahoma are so quirky, so specific in their character that they could only have sprung up here: Tahlequah, Okemah, Pawhuska, Anadarko—these have to be Oklahoma towns. Lawton, though, could be packed up and shipped to Georgia, New Jersey, California, Virginia, with little hint of disruption. Or so I was thinking as we cruised Cache Road, found a nice corporate chain hotel in which to spend the night, headed out next morning for breakfast at IHOP.

In bright early morning sunlight we sat in the same restaurant where Connie and her friends used to come for coffee late at night. Same pink and orange décor, same sticky syrup pourers you’d find in any International House of Pancakes anywhere, but imbued for Connie with memory and weight. I tried to see the place through her eyes, but it seemed too nonspecific to me. At the same time, it felt different from other such places in Oklahoma. The customers were more racially mixed, for one thing, their accents more varied; they were overall younger, and more of them were male. There’s a kind of drawling, neighborly, geriatric friendliness you’ll find amidst the pale skins and gray heads in the Shawnee IHOP or the one in Muskogee. But I felt a harder edge here, a hint of protective distance, something akin to the invisible wall that had dropped between Mr. McMurtry and me. These folks were all strangers. There was no natural neighborliness, no unspoken sense of we’re all in this together. I was looking to find Connie’s home territory, the place she writes from, but so far the town seemed too ordinary to be a force for fiction. But, of course (and I knew this even then), ugliness, beauty, story-worthy pain: they’re always in the eyes of the one who sees.

The fact is, we see place with our hearts, with our child-mind; it’s a difficult translation to make in the mundaneness of the real world. I’ve seen the disappointment in readers’ eyes when I’ve shown them the actual church or jail yard or mountain ridge I’ve written about. Once, in Oxford, Mississippi, William Faulkner’s nephew Jimmy showed me and some other visitors the real house owned by the real woman who was the model for the title character in “A Rose For Emily.” But the frame house Jimmy Faulkner showed us looked nothing like the grand home in my reader’s imagination—it wasn’t complicated or spooky or striking enough for Miss Emily. So it was with Connie and Lawton. I didn’t have eyes to see the town magnified through memory, autobiography, the swell of drama and imagination the fiction writer uses to give heightened form to the real places she writes about. When I read about the town in Connie’s fiction, I see the place as funky, unique, full of intrigue and history. But that hot August morning in 2001, Lawton appeared to me bland, generic, quintessentially American only in the scope of its corporate, cookie-cutter ordinariness.

Later we headed north, out of town, toward the Wichita Mountains.

Okay, I thought. This is why the place
holds her.

One look, even at a great distance, and you feel it—this is an ancient place, outside history. Strange, craggy pyramids thrust up from the plains, not smoky blue from far off, as wooded mountains are, but umber and glowing. The crests are capped by 500-million-year-old granite, creviced and rounded by eons of weather, with rivers of boulders tumbling down their slopes and a sea of mixed short and tall grasses all around: buffalo grass and grama, Indian grass and bluestem. The plains are khaki colored in August, dotted with bison, elk, deer, longhorn cattle, black-tailed prairie dogs: residents of the oldest managed wildlife preserve in the nation.

What power the land holds, what memory. We entered the preserve on the back roads, and I remember thinking how very different Connie’s Oklahoma is from mine. Both have their origination stories seeded in tragedy and violence and hope and migration, yet they look and feel as different, well, as the east is from the west. I grew up in Indian Territory, present day Eastern Oklahoma: forest green in its essence, thickly wooded in most places, obscured by shade and shadow and rolling, humpbacked hills. The tribes whose stories I grew up with are the mighty Osage and the great southern peoples, the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Mvskoke/Creek, and Seminole, removed from their homelands in the American South and marched west in the early 1800s—a mere eyeblink on the spiral in comparison to the ancient belonging of the plains tribes here in the old Comancheria, the southwestern corner of Oklahoma Territory where Connie was raised. This place, as I saw it that day, is dusty tan and pale blue in its essence, the hues of sweeping plains and endless sky. The tribes here are the Comanche and Kiowa and Arapaho: powerful, horsed, roving peoples corralled at the end of the 19th century from their vast territories onto small reservations in and around Fort Sill. Soon the Apaches, including their warrior leader Geronimo, were forced from their home in the western deserts, first to the swamplands of Florida, where they climbed trees to try to see the sky and died in droves, and then here, to live as prisoners inside the fort’s walls.

The Kiowas have long held certain sites in the Wichitas as sacred. Rainy Mountain, for one. Longhorn Mountain another—the western reaches of which private land owners have of late leased to a private mining company to blast the native limestone into gravel and truck it away: a 21st century manifestation of our long history of desecration. Desecration is what it seems to me, not sacrilege, for the land is sacred, not holy—a distinction I understand emotionally but cannot articulate. My upbringing, steeped as it was in evangelical Protestantism with its theological disdain for sacrament and ritual, runs up against the sensibilities of my Catholic-raised husband, for whom the power of sacrament has endured long past a childhood of catechism and weekly mass, and the wordless influence of Indian friends for whom ceremony is sacred, enduring, not to be spoken about. I have read that the Kiowa people go to Longhorn Mountain to gather cedar for ceremony. They go there to pray. There is no church, no outside religion. I think often of the power of this land’s indigenous peoples to survive not just all attempts at genocide but deicide, the slaughtering of the Creator, of ceremony: the attempt to eradicate everything held sacred, everything known to them, including their language, their homelands. In the teeth of this human-designed apocalypse, I think, there is survival this way.

Late that afternoon, we stopped at a tourist shop in Medicine Park. The woman there told us that something weird was going on. The base at Fort Sill was locked down, she said. No civilians could visit. That’s unusual, Connie said. She’d spent her youth bopping onto the base to visit her father, who was headquartered there. She’d known the base to be closed for maneuvers from time to time, it wasn’t unheard of, but it was rare, she said. The shopkeeper told us there was a kind of tension around, an edginess she hadn’t seen before. But America was pre-9/11 then, we still lived in our cocooned sense of security, and soon enough, the topic was dropped.

Inside my head, though, a silent little alarm was sounding. When I was a kid we practiced surviving a nuclear attack by hiding under our school desks with our hands clasped over our heads. Through my teen years, on Wednesday nights, our pastor railed from the pulpit with the King James Bible in one hand, opened to the last book, showing us the signs of the last days: earthquakes in diverse places, the moon turning to blood. Tribulation. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Armageddon. Raised on Revelation at the height of the Cold War, I internalized my doomsday visions early. The fact is, I’ve been waiting for the end of the world all my life.

So when the woman in the tourist shop said that something unprecedented and strange was going on, I believed her. A quiet sense of dread awakened in me. The foreboding stayed inside me, buzzing in my ears, flooding my veins, as my husband bought a ceramic lizard and an open-mouthed frog rain gauge to measure the biblical toad-strangler rainstorms we get in our part of Oklahoma. Nothing dramatic or out of the ordinary happened, though. We got back in the car and drove on. When we drew near the back entrance to Fort Sill called Apache Gate, we decided to try, despite what the tourist shop lady had told us, to get on base to see Geronimo’s grave. A soldier stepped out of a shaded kiosk into the hot sun to tell us the base was closed to visitors. Steve turned the car around, and we headed back to the blacktop. A short while later, in Lawton, we separated, Paul and I got in our car and headed toward our summer home near McAlester. I forgot all about that sense of foreboding.

On September 11, 2001, back in my other home territory in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, when I sat in my living room watching the images on television as the World Trade Center crumbled to earth in a cascading rain of apocalyptic black dust, then I remembered.

Appeared in This Land: Summer 2016. Excerpted from Most American: Notes From a Wounded Place, forthcoming from the University of Oklahoma Press.